Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Other Prejudices

March 10, 2019

Muslim representation in Congress is good for America. But with the racist demagoguery of the Trump Administration, it is important for Jews and Muslims to discuss intergroup rhetoric and prejudice. I’ve heard some nonsense about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Jews. Let’s clear it up.

First, criticism of Israel, Hamas or the PLO are neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia. Lots of us are critical of the regimes in places sacred to us.  So are many who live there.

But charging disloyalty is a problem. Omar said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Charging disloyalty because people care about what happens to a country or people abroad is over the top and fans prejudice. Omar is one of those who cares and should be concerned about the implications of her own rhetoric.

Americans have cared about foreign nations and peoples since the acrimony here over the French Revolution. America’s first political parties split over it, with successive presidents Adams and Jefferson on opposite sides. Other prominent examples include American support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19th century. More recently many Americans supported the IRA, the PLO, Hamas and Israel though all are controversial here and abroad. Sympathy isn’t disloyalty though we disagree about who’s right. Treating sympathy as disloyalty would make traitors of us all.

Democracy cannot survive loose generalizations about disloyalty. Plus, they block sensible responses, tying us up fighting each other instead of dealing with the issues. Dealing sensibly with the Middle East requires coming back from the brink. Obama had a point in saying that we need to disengage from the Middle East because it’s more difficult and takes more attention and energy than it’s worth. My view is that America should refuse to support either side that breaks agreements and creates serious problems for America – killing innocents, uprooting people from their homes, expanding settlements – both sides have committed plenty of atrocities. But amid loose charges of disloyalty, sensible policies are off the table.

With good reason, Jews are very sensitive to anti-Semitism and Muslims to Islamophobia. Prejudices are fanned by sloppily extending disagreement to attacks on peoples’ decency and legitimacy. In my course on comparative constitutional law we took up the troubles in Ireland. There was plenty of criticism to go around. But it didn’t and shouldn’t have made any of us anti-Irish. Americans once were viciously so. Before Trump, those days seemed over for the Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians and they should end for the Muslims, Blacks and others. And good riddance. Americans have been attacked and killed not only over race but over support for unions, and sloppy, unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty against Catholics, Germans, Italians, and Japanese, to name a few – in some cases just for knowing people’s languages. It was a sordid past that we should be doing our best to put behind us, for everyone’s sake.

I would make it a criteria of loyalty to back off generalizations about people and deal with our work, our ideas, our contributions and our mistakes on their own terms. The very idea that some of us are better than others because of our ancestry is un-American to the core. The very idea that our sympathies for the peoples from whom we came justify charges of disloyalty is a threat to us all, and to everything that did make America great. The very fact that Trump and others are now challenging that consensus is the biggest threat to the future of our country. Prejudice and hatred are a disease that can destroy America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 12, 2019.

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Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.


Happy New Year

January 1, 2019

In keeping with the spirit of the day I’d like to share a prayer that expresses ways in which collectively we have fallen short and need to do better. My hopes for the new year are entwined in that doing better. I think it makes little difference in whose house of worship I found the language because I think we all share it though the words may vary:

We dishonor You when we dishonor our society:

For our failures of justice, … [Lord], we seek forgiveness.

For being indifferent to deprivation and hunger,

while accepting a culture of self-indulgence and greed.

For abuse of power in board rooms, court rooms and classrooms,

and for accepting the neglect of children and elders, the ill and the weak.

For permitting social inequalities to prevail,

and for lacking the vision to transcend our selfishness.

For glorifying violence and turning hastily to war,

and for allowing history to repeat itself.

For behaviors that risk the future of our planet,

and for wreaking havoc on our only true inheritance – God’s creation.

What I always liked about attending religious services is that they create a time to hear and express the finer goals of life. And so too in those words.

In thinking about each other we recognize that everybody counts, that achieving our common goals depends on recognizing the importance and humanity of all, so that we can pull together to achieve what is crucial to us all.

In thinking about the ways these values resonate in each of our faiths, we recognize how much more we are linked than divided, whether because some of our faiths were bred on the same Middle Eastern mountains and deserts, or because of the miracle by which these ideas have been repeatedly reborn across the globe.

In thinking about the transcendence of these common values of generosity, caring, fairness, justice, peace and concern for the world we share, we think about the unity among our faiths and among us as people.

The narratives of how each of our faiths came to share those values differ but we share the values – the Golden Rule, Loving our neighbors – we share a tradition of mutual care and concern of which we can be justly proud and which deserves our commitment. Indeed, it is the only path to the survival of our earthly home and the possibility that our children and grandchildren will live lives unembittered by the world collapsing around them, from fire, flood, hunger, poison, thirst or scourge. I’m thinking about Maggie and Rebecca. Perhaps you’re thinking about Jodie and Joseph. We and all our children and grandchildren share this world. And how we and they come out of it depends on how well we share it and take care of each other.

Happy New Year


Liberty and License

December 11, 2018

With this Administration demolishing the regulatory state, we need to talk about the underlying claim of liberty. Conservatives once distinguished between liberty and license. Liberty was morally and socially responsible; license was not. That distinction seems to have disappeared from the conservative vocabulary. And with it the moral order in the country.

“Liberty” is now invoked whenever business confronts regulation. Citing “liberty,” business fought the exposure of Thalidomide even as it monstrously disfigured and eventually killed the child of one of my students. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to waste energy and sell energy wasting products no matter the impact on the climate. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to pollute with mercury, arsenic and an alphabet of poisons, to put anything into products, into or onto our bodies, earth, air and water unless and until someone else can prove it’s harmful. We don=t treat medicine that way but the claim is that it violates the “liberty” of supplement producers for us to ask for tests of whatever they don=t want to have to get FDA approval for. Some might think it also violates buyers= liberty to lead healthy lives B but perish the thought; that’s not economic “liberty.”

Because people Atook the risk@ B they called it Aliberty@ B financial institutions claimed the “liberty” to construct mortgage terms that made it virtually impossible for buyers to come out above water, destroying their savings, credit, health, homes, livelihood, families and future. In the Great Recession of 2008, those terms took the whole economy down as major companies, banks and markets failed in a cesspool of bizarre financial arrangements, subprime mortgages, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps, and similar misbegotten deals. And it was OK to bail out those who were too big to fail because they just exercised their “liberty.”

To the free marketeers, the President and CEOs, regulation is generalized and undifferentiated. All restrictions are regulation and they are all bad unless and until regulators spend decades jumping through hoops. Meanwhile producers bear no responsibility to check whether their products are harmful. They accept no liability when harms become obvious to science, but only when it becomes obvious to the very people who pour their poisons into our bodies and our world.

Put it another way. There is no single definition of liberty. There are different definitions of “liberty” for you and me, different definitions for farmers, cattle ranchers, factory workers, lumber workers, guys, gals, easterners, southerners, people who want to graze their animals on public lands without paying B everyone has their own definition of “liberty” and their definitions pay no attention to the impact on the rest of us or on anyone else. Which means that “liberty” no longer means anything.

Liberty for the founders was universal. “Liberty” now seems to be a sacred word applied to whatever is good for us personally but with no binding meaning. Otherwise why can=t I do what I want to do on public land whether or not it conflicts with public purposes or Cliven Bundy’s insistence that he has the right to graze his animals there. Why isn=t that the same “liberty” he insists on? “Liberty” is whatever a president chooses to do whether or not it is good for the country. “Liberty” is what conservatives think we all should respect when it pertains to their clients. Their “liberty” is meaningless, a signal that we=re talking about selfishness, not rights. They’re talking about what used to be called license to do whatever they want regardless of whom it hurts.

Real liberty regards us equally. We all have the same rights. It makes no sense if you can do to me what I can=t do to you. True liberty is freedom to act short of injuring others. We all count. And that, equality, is as American as apple pie.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 11, 2018.


Racists and Self-Interest

August 14, 2018

I have no illusions that anything I can say would convince white nationalists to flip their political sides. Nevertheless, I think it is important to engage them.

There is of course a strong moral argument based on the Enlightenment, reflected in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are born equal. But let me see if I can engage anyone with arguments based on their own self-interest?

First, I don’t know how many of the white nationalists have had their DNA checked by 23 and Me or similar organizations. They might find that their own backgrounds are multicultural much like the rest of us. And I’m not sure how many of the white nationalists want to reject or deport their own grandparents or other ancestors.

Beyond that, racial, religious and ethnic nationalism is basically what is called, in language stemming from game theory, a zero-sum game. That is to say, we have a pie of specific size and fight about how to cut it up. But that’s a faulty premise. In fact, the larger the group that participates in the productive process, the more there is for everyone to do. The success of this country was based on our own common market among the states from the very beginning from the Canadian to the Florida border. That gave us a big advantage and propelled this country into the forefront economically within a few years. The European Union was developed and has been prosperous for much the same reason. And there is plenty of factual data that multi-cultural workforces lead to expanding their businesses much more than homogenous ones. It’s easy to look at a single job and notice who has it and who might have had it, but without looking at whether that job and many others would exist in a narrower market one does not have anything close to a full picture. So, I don’t think trade among multiple different cultures, or the development of complex multi-cultural economies are zero sum games. I do think they expand opportunities for us all. And the economic risk from trying to cut oneself off from that is stagnation and decline.

I have another concern about rejecting multi-culturalism: China, not to mention the rest of Asia. One of the things Obama realized, a realization no less true or false if one objects to the color of the man, was that the nations of Asia were focused on their economic advancement, were working hard to grow and were quite successful at it. That was behind his hope to “pivot to Asia.” But our own treatment of people from all the Asian countries, as visitors, residents and citizens, can strengthen or weaken our relations and our cooperation in foreign and economic policy. Perceived as racist, we can become the target of attack. Nations like China and India have the size and fire power to be problems. In briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s, both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration argued for an end to the separate but equal doctrine partly because it made international diplomacy difficult.

I don’t even want to talk about the possibility of internal war. Both for our country and for each of us, white nationalism is a dangerous mistake.

After writing this, we took our grandchildren to Tanglewood for a Young People’s Concert. At one point the BSO played Leonard Bernstein’s music for the rumble in West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan. The rumble pitted the white Jets gang against the Puerto Rican Sharks. It ends in universal disaster. In the suite that Bernstein created from the music, as Tony lies dying in Maria’s arms, the harsh, jagged music for the rumble dissolves into the lyrical, wistful music of Somewhere There is a Place for Us. Somewhere indeed. My granddaughter caught tears rolling down my face. Bernstein like Beethoven before him believed that music could somehow bring us together. I wish it were so.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 14, 2018.


So-called “illegal aliens” and the Golden Door

July 10, 2018

We hear a lot of talk about legality and illegality, about illegal aliens as a wrong inflicted on the U.S. I think we need to address the significance of legality and illegality head on.

Law and morality are not the same. Slavery and the Holocaust were consistent with the written law. Assisting fugitive slaves was legally punishable in this country but those involved in the underground railroad are honored now and were often protected by people in free states while slave catchers sometimes faced riots and retribution.

This separation of law and morality is common to all parts of the political spectrum. There are arguments why laws should be obeyed but they are all contingent on how bad the violation of morality is.

The term “illegal aliens” is inappropriate for immigrants until their cases are decided. They have a right to apply regardless of how they got here. But I don’t want to get hung up on legality. My question is morality. Are immigrants morally wrong to come here at great risk to themselves and their families?

The Charter for the Nuremberg Trials took aim at crimes against humanity which included “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.” Is it then immoral to flee from likely murder, extermination, enslavement or other inhumane acts? It makes no moral sense to allege that parents were immoral because they broke American law, even if that were true, to avoid such fates, to save their children’s lives or their own.

But these arguments about immigrants miss what really matters to most of us – our willingness to share. The first time I visited the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem about the statue was on a brass plaque over the entrance. The next time it had been moved to the museum underneath. It’s the poem that ends “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Mama passed through that door as a girl of eight. She was brought here by her older brother Sam. He was 12, and they were brought up by sisters who were already here. My parents described the racism and religious prejudice that threatened many immigrant families. But it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the pogroms that mama and my dad’s parents escaped. And no one knew yet how much more dangerous that part of the world was going to be for Jewish families.

Shortly before my graduation from college I got a phone call to rush to the hospital where mama was being treated for cancer. One of the last things she said to me was “It’s a good life; I don’t want to leave it.” This country was good to my parents and they loved it. They learned English, got an education and decent jobs, raised a son, and in the summers we traveled all over this state.

My reaction to those blessings is to see the blessings immigrants brought with them, to want to share, and to treat immigrants in humane ways that once made this country a beacon to the world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 10, 2018

 

 


Images of America

March 6, 2018

When the Metropolitan Opera came on with Madame Butterfly recently, I began to puzzle about why the opera is so strongly anti-American. In Butterfly, an American naval lieutenant trifles with the heart of a young Japanese woman ending with her ritual suicide, leaving their baby to him and his new American wife.

It turns out that the story originated with a French officer about his own experiences but Puccini, who wrote the opera, saw a rewritten version, the version that became the basis of the magnificent and tragic love story he was to immortalize in music.

My students never like to be confronted with dates but dates are telling. The original version of Madame Butterfly was finished and performed in 1904. That was shortly after the end of what we call the Spanish-American war, the war that left us with Puerto Rico and, until we gave them independence, the Philippines.

America has come to think of itself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt left it, decent and triumphant in the cause of freedom and democracy. The symbols of our battle were drawn by Norman Rockwell – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. It was a war for self-preservation – we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was also a moral crusade, for democracy, freedom and the welfare of mankind. Soon after the war, President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall sprang to the aid of refugees and impoverished people all over Europe with aid and redevelopment. America was a beacon of hope and decency for the world.

But more recently our military involvement in the Middle East and Asia has forced us to look back at our behavior, particularly in the Philippines. After World War II, some Philippinos told me they often thought of the U.S. like the cavalry in a western movie, massed on a ridge ready to save them from disaster. That may be a fair portrayal of our role there in World War II. But our part in the Spanish-American War is much less fondly remembered, in this country as well as abroad. American troops there pioneered methods of torture that we used later in Iraq. America’s great humorist, Mark Twain, wrote a searing short story about our part in the Spanish-American war – and, understanding how hard it would be for Americans to face that reality, dictated that it could not be published in his lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, we drove over to Mark Twain’s home town in Missouri and found that his War Prayer was his best selling work in the book store, but in the Mark Twain museum, The War Prayer was not to be found – it was still too upsetting for the townspeople.

The Founders of our country liked to refer to what they called the “genius of the people.” But the American people have stood for very different things at different times. Maybe it’s just that different people had more power or maybe it’s that the same people are driven by different motives. The Founders had a different thought – there’s evil in all of us.

But the wages of moral behavior are significant. The America that came off World War II leading the defense and reconstruction of the free world is not automatically the America that is closing itself off from the destinies of everyone we choose not to care about. And the international repercussions will be significant.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 2018.


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